If you happen to be in San Francisco on a weekday between now and June 27 you may want to check out a show of photographic work from young Iranian artists called After the Revolution. The ‘revolution’ in the title is the 1979 Iranian Revolution and all the artists were born that year or later and live in either Iran or California. The show is being presented by the San Francisco Arts Commission and hangs in City Hall which sets up an interesting dialogue between Iran and a representation of US government. Before I even saw the work, the juxtaposition had me thinking about things like censorship and freedom, fear and security. Thoughts that were reinforced when I passed through the metal detectors to see the show.
The work hangs on both sides of two long corridors that radiate from a central space. I’m describing the space because the dialogue that began with the building and art continues between the work of different artists within the show. In several cases the curator(s) have set up photos by two different artists across the hall from one another and this viewer can’t help but make relationships between them.
from Fort Series, Amir H. Fallah
The first pairing is Meysam Mahfouz’s sensitively observed series The Interiors (2007) from Tehran with Amir H. Fallah’s Fort Series (2007) in which the photographer and friends constructed forts in their homes using everyday objects. Both play with the idea of interior and exterior, but more specifically with the idea of a safe haven. Especially when you take into consideration Mahfouz’s artist statement saying that the photographer work exclusively indoors. Why is that? Is there something to fear in photographing outside or is that just the artist’s preference? In Fallah’s series there is the sense of play that comes with fort building, but in the context of this show one can’t help thinking of the military connotations of the word. Are they built for protection, an outpost in an unfamiliar land?
The topic of interior and exterior is continued in the work of Morteza Khaki, but his series Purse Snatching (2006) is also more explicitly about identity. In his series of wallets and purses that are photographed open you can see both public faces (ID cards) and private ones (personal photographs). This duality of public and private persona is the most frequent topic of the work here and shows up in the next pairing as well, Naciem Nikkah’s A Private Rebellion (2007) and Mahoube Karamli’s The Girls (2006). Nikkah’s work is a series of images of desktops from an Iranian school with the layers of writing and drawing that have been left behind by students. The image brings to mind a similar one from Catherine Wagner’s series American Classroom showing that the girls of Manzandaran high school in Iran have many of the same concerns as young people in the US. Karamli’s series also portrays young women in Iran, but this time they are themselves in the private spaces of their rooms rather than traces scribbled on a desk. Switching from the portrayal of others to the portrayal of self, Shadi Yousefian deals with the idea of different selves in a much more visceral way. Her Self-Portraits (2003) are collaged together from roughly cut or distressed parts and the central space in the exhibit holds two close to life size portraits, The Two Standing Shadis (2003), cobbled together on metal plates, one in traditional dress, one in Western dress.
from American Classroom, Catherine Wagner
from Bodiless I, Mehraneh Atashi
To me the most interesting work was Mehraneh Atashi’s Bodiless 1 (2004). A series of images taken by a young woman at a zourkhaneh, a traditional gymnasium where men train for both physical and spiritual strength. That in itself would be interesting, but she also uses mirrors to view the men and place her own image in the frame. The negotiation that must have been involved to gain access to this society of men is accentuated by her own image wearing a head scarf and holding a camera. You are conscious of both her gaze, that of the men and their awareness of her gaze. On top of all this, many of the images show that the walls of the gym are covered with portraits of very serious (religious?) men looking down on the happenings. I can’t help but wonder, would they approve? I also wonder what those serious men would think of the work across the hall where we have a different take on the mirror, identity and the idea of self-improvement, this time with the focus on Iranian women. Parisa Taghizadeh’s series Make-Up Iran (2001) focuses the lens on the daily ritual of applying make up that is most likely unknown to men outside their immediate family.
from Make-Up Tehran, Parisa Taghizadeh
The final pairing is Parham Taghioff’s Passage (2007) and Elhum Amjadi’s Makeshift Motherland (2005). On the one side you have images of a market in Iran, shops shut, covered over with colorful cloth. On the other you have images of a Persian market in California, shop keepers, people conversing, reading books, etc. The images are black and white, shot in a documentary style, but they also take on characteristics of nostalgia. They show a world that is a recreation of another time and place. It’s a place that you wonder, when looking across the hall, if it still exists.
from Passage, Parham Taghioff
Nostalgia isn’t restricted to the photographers living outside of Iran either. Working in the streets of Tehran Manboube Karamli documents the destruction of older buildings in his series The Walls (2007). By photographing the walls of the buildings that remain when the neighboring building is razed he reveals the traces of what has been lost, making what is left behind all the more poignant.
In the end I feel like the importance of this show, more than the work of any individual artist, is in the dialogue that it engenders between two cultures, past and present, public and personal, male and female. It is a reminder that dialogue is the key to understanding.